Raphael was one of the greatest portrait painters of all time, whose images exemplified the humanistic principles of Western civilization.
Raphaël Santi (1483-1520), along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, is one of the three artistic titans of the Italian High Renaissance. Yet unlike the other two, he has not had the widespread admiration in the United States that he deserves. That’s partly because he’s never been the subject of bestselling novels or Hollywood epics. More importantly, his most notable works, such as The school of Athens, are frescoed on the walls of the Vatican or hung in European museums and rarely loaned out. Even in England, where many of his drawings and paintings reside, there have been few exhibitions and, so far, none cover his entire career. For his Classic Raphael exhibition (closing July 31), the National Gallery in London has successfully secured loans of Raphael’s paintings, drawings, prints, tapestries, sculptures and architectural models from across Europe.
Raphael was born into a family of artists in the small but culturally rich Duchy of Urbino in the province of Umbria. The young man had a fine talent for drawing, as evidenced by a self-portrait in black chalk at the age of 15-16. The bright-eyed youth, directly and intimately meeting our gaze, is an intriguing portrayal of artistic ambition and aspiration. Early art historian Giorgio Vasari tells us that the court where Raphael’s father was the official painter helped shape and polish the boy’s gentle and pleasant character. His charm, talent, and intelligence would later win him favor with the most powerful men in Rome, including the two popes, Julius II and Leo X, and Italy’s richest man, banker Agostino Chigi.
Around 1500, Raphael apprenticed with Perugino, the most successful artist in Umbria. Raphael’s earliest surviving altarpiece, Christ crucified with the Virgin Mary, saints and angels, owes its clarity and symmetry and the gentle, devout expressions of its figures to the style of the older artist. Raphael was so good at imitation that if he hadn’t signed the altarpiece, it would have been taken for his mentor’s. Despite the subject, the altarpiece depicts a more serene and harmonious world than ours. Serenity and harmony will remain Raphaël’s ideals throughout his career.
A small painting in the first room, easily overlooked, provides the key to understanding Raphael’s future development. An allegory shows a young knight asleep on the ground before a laurel with a female figure on either side. Being an allegory, women are personifications of ideas. Virtue, modestly dressed, is on the left holding a book and a sword; on the right, Pleasure (or Vice), more prettily dressed, holding a flowering twig, symbol of earthly delights.
An ancient tale behind the image, first told by the philosopher Socrates in Xenophon Memories, concerns the choice of a young hero between two ways of life. Pleasure drives him to avoid danger and seek the easy life, but virtue warns that such a life is unworthy of a man who wants to win honor and glory. One must take the high road of diligence, work tirelessly at noble endeavors, and measure oneself against the most worthy adversaries to attain greatness. Raphael identified with the knight’s goal.
An irresistible ambition drew Raphael to Florence in 1504, the most artistically advanced city in Italy, to learn from the groundbreaking works of Leonardo and Michelangelo. From mona-lisa and other portraits by Leonardo, he learned to suggest the inner life of the sitter, as in the quiet reserve and mystery of the woman in La Muta (The silent). In Catherine of Alexandria, the holy martyr gazes rapturously skyward before her execution. Its beautifully curved contrapposto is derived from that of Leonardo Leda. The monumentality of the saint’s physical presence is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s unfinished marble Saint Matthew. The fact that Raphael was able to absorb and combine the very different sensibilities and ideas of Leonardo and Michelangelo is a tribute to his abilities and his confidence.
The Madonna and Child were the most common subjects of religious art during the Renaissance, and Raphael’s depictions are undoubtedly among the most excellent. Vasari suggests that their deep emotional resonance derives from Raphael’s early upbringing. Raphael’s father refused to follow custom by sending the child to a lower class nanny and kept him at home so his mother could nurse him. Although his beloved mother died when he was 8, Raphael carried deep filial emotions in his heart throughout his adult life.
In 1508, 25-year-old Raphael moved to Rome. His relative, the papal architect Donato Bramante, brought Raphael to the attention of Pope Julius. Raphael’s first job was to decorate the hall of the Pope’s private library, the Stanza Della Segnatura. His most famous mural, School of Athens, is reproduced in full-size copy for show. It depicts ancient philosophers, natural scientists, mathematicians and thinkers led by Plato and Aristotle engaged in conversation, debate and intellectual collaboration. The other frescoes in the room represent the fields of theology, poetry and law. Reason and Revelation support each other and work in harmony as a whole. For centuries, these images have illustrated the humanistic principles of Western civilization.
Raphael was one of the greatest portrait painters of all time, a skill he brought to the paintings of his patrons, friends and lovers. His image of Julius II is remarkably humble for a man known as the “warrior pope”, recording the fragility of Julius’ later years. In The Courtier’s Book, the diplomat Baldassare Castiglione explains how to conduct oneself with elegance and grace. Raphaël represents him with a discreet air and an impeccable outfit. In the Self-portrait with Giulio Romano, the master, his hand on his assistant’s shoulder, seems to hint that he is ready to pass the torch. Finally, two striking portraits of women who may have been the painter’s lovers: an intimately suggestive nude La Fornarina (Baker’s Daughter) and a beautifully costumed La Donna Velata (Woman in the Veil). The first evokes desire, especially since she wears an armband inscribed with the painter’s name; the latter, with its splendid decorum, evokes respectful love. Vasari tells us that Raphael died “from an excess of love”.
For those who cannot make it to London, there is an excellent catalog of the exhibition by art historians Tom Henry and David Ekserdjian.
Joseph R. Phelan has taught at the University of Maryland, the Catholic University of America and the University of Toronto.